April 19, 2018

Breaking Out of the Analysis Loop

Posted by AGU Career Center

Decisions are hard.  Sometimes you have too much information, sometimes you have too little, and sometimes it conflicts.  It’s easy to get stuck in a loop – going through the same options over and over again, hoping something new will jump and make the right choice obvious. In the meantime, you are not moving forward.  When you find yourself the victim of “analysis paralysis”, try some of these techniques to get yourself unstuck.

Do your Research

Sometimes, you don’t have enough information to make a decision, or don’t have the right information.  Scientists love to do research, but in order to be efficient, you need to decide ahead of time what you need to know.  Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • Who is involved, both as customers and as stakeholders?
  • Who is responsible?
  • What is required and what is optional?
  • What resources are available?
  • What is fixed, and what is still flexible?
  • Is time, money, staff, or something else the most important consideration?
  • Which option are you more excited about, and more willing to make work?

Make a note of topics that are interesting but not necessary for your current decision, so you can revisit them later, well after you’ve made this initial decision.  If you don’t know what you need to know, you may initially have to research broadly, however, it is important to narrow your search to the data that will inform your immediate decision as quickly as possible.

Break the Cycle

No matter which option you pick, there will be consequences, and sometimes it’s the fear of bad consequences that keeps you from making a decision.  If you pick option A, one bad thing might happen.  If you pick option B, a different bad thing might happen.  How do you choose?  Ask yourself the following:

  • Which negative outcome is more likely?
  • Which would be more devastating?
  • Which is more recoverable?
  • Does one option have a bigger positive outcome, or higher chance of success?
  • Is there additional information that would allow for more accurate predictions?
  • Can you get that information?  When?

Set a Deadline

When is the last responsible moment to make this decision?  You want to wait as long as you can, but no longer.  Set your deadline for a time when you are at your best, which for many people is first thing in the morning.  This is why people often “sleep on” an issue but actually make the final decision in the morning.  Telling someone else when to expect the results is also important: making your self-imposed deadline public makes you more likely to keep to it.

Ask Others

Explain the issue to someone you trust, ideally to a couple of people.  Someone who is peripherally involved will understand the subtleties and nuances and may be familiar with what has been done in similar situations in the past.  Someone who is not involved can be more objective and having to explain it to them will force you to get down to the basics—and help you clarify, both to them and yourself, what is important and why.

Flip a Coin

If you’re down to two choices, you can flip a coin.  Seriously.  However, before you reveal the result of the flip, ask yourself which way you are hoping it turns out.  Then ask why you were hoping that.

Build an iterative process

Sometimes, you have to start before you feel ready and figure out the rest as you move forward.  But can you find a way to try out your decision? Can you get something done quickly, and see how it works, and how it is received?  If yes, then be sure to collect feedback from both stakeholders and customers and adjust accordingly.

No matter how you decide to decide, once it’s done you need to commit. Make the best decision you can with the information you have. You’ll never know what might have been, so move forward confidently.   Even the “best” decision may end up being derailed, and even picking the “worst” choice may turn out much better than you expected.

Lisa M. Balbes, PhD, has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for over 25 years.  She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).